By Joshua Maloni
At this rate, Olivia Rox might take over the world.
Only 22, she’s already a singer, performer, actor, show host, journalist, change agent and aerialist.
Last fall, her song, “Go Vote,” encouraged people to do just that: Olivia teamed with Spread The Vote and The Grammy Foundation while serving as an ambassador for HeadCount, a voter registration organization that brought ballots to some 400,000 people.
During the pandemic, she started a variety-based Facebook show, aptly titled “The Olivia Rox Show,” which blends stories, interviews and musical performances (hers and those of special guests) with the occasional themed-drink recipe.
Plus, she does a mean Galileo impersonation.
Since making the top 10 on 2016’s “final season” of “American Idol” – the FOX Network version, anyway – Olivia has released two albums (“POPROX” and “Just a Girl & Her Guitar”), a series of singles and slew of imaginative, one-take videos.
Simply put: With a four-octave-plus range, colorful imagery, playful personality and poignant lyrics, Olivia is everything people loved about pop culture and music at the turn of the century – but in a 2021 version.
The daughter of saxman Warren Hill and singer/director Tamara Van Cleef, Olivia grew up surrounded by creative types and embracing the stage. But it was her own inner determination and love for music that led her to become a multi-multi-hyphenate and world conqueror.
Olivia offered a behind-the-scenes look into her remarkable life and California-based career in an interview earlier this week. An edited Q&A follows – and be sure to watch the videos included, as well, because they are a glimpse of greatness.
Olivia Rox (Images courtesy of Scoop Marketing)
Q: When I was preparing for this interview, I thought there is a million things I could ask you about. I'm thinking this may be a statement that journalists make to you often in interviews. There's literally 100 different things we could ask you about, because you're doing 100 different things at any given point in time.
But the thing I want to talk to you most about is your creativity. I really admire your creativity.
The past 13 months have been challenging for everyone – and you are in a state where it's been particularly “interesting.” How did you maintain that creativity? What was the challenge in coming up with these projects while the world was sort of a crazy place to be?
Olivia Rox: Well, that's a great question. I'd love to talk about that. It's funny, because I feel like, when you're a creative person, you can't shut it off.
I literally wrote a song the other day while I was falling asleep. I had probably a 14-hour day. I was spent; I was ready to just collapse in my bed. And I'm sitting there and it starts kind of coming in my mind. And I'm like, “Dang, this is a bummer, because I can't fall asleep now.” Once I start a song, I have to just document it.
So, you know, I pull up my phone; I'm like, “OK, da da da da. OK, back. I can sleep; we'll finish it tomorrow.” And then the next line comes to me (laughs). And I got on my phone, “OK; here it is.” I ended up writing the entire song – and it was like 3 a.m.
Creativity just inspires more creativity. So, when you are a naturally creative person, it's kind of like you eat, sleep and breathe it. I love throwing myself into that magic and really just taking it wherever it may lead.
Q: Is there something that you attribute your creativity to? I know you come from a musical background; your parents are very established. But is there something that you find gives you particular motivation? What is the creativity process for you? What does that entail?
Olivia Rox: You know, it comes just at the most random of times.
But I am very inspired by traveling and speaking with people. I'm also very inspired by the world around me and things happening. I do like to be educated about what's going on in the world.
And it was funny because, when I was younger, and I was probably 13 or 14 writing these songs, they weren't love songs. They weren't like the typical, “Hey, I'm a 14-year-old writing about my boyfriend. Oooh, yay.” They were very, very much in tune with the world around me, and trying to speak up for social issues that a 14-year-old wouldn't write about normally.
And so, I think that was kind of when I realized, “Hey, I love this; I need to be a writer.” I need to follow this, because I'm not just doing it to write a hit song or something, you know? I'm doing it to get my thoughts and feelings out; and kind of use it as a journal in a way.
I'm definitely inspired by the world around me. And sometimes I'll go for a hike or run, and I'll see a butterfly. I’ll get inspired by that butterfly.
It's funny: It's like that little spark just goes off. I have to carry my phone everywhere with me – not just to be on my phone, but to document it in case something comes up.
Q: You mentioned the most recent song that came to you as you were trying to sleep, and you talked about where your inspiration comes from. What is the writing process for you? I know you write your own songs – which is amazing – and they do very much reflect the things you were just talking about. But does it come easy to you? Does it come naturally to you? Does it often come sort of the way it did the other night? Or is it more of a process?
Olivia Rox: I wrote my first song when I was 3 years old – and, of course, it was a 3-year-old’s song. But I definitely nurtured it from then – and my parents obviously helped me to nurture that. I was homeschooled my entire life, so it was very helpful for me; if I had some sort of spark inspiration, my parents were very flexible. They'd be like, “Hey, pause your studies; go write it down.” Which is super-freeing – and not a lot of kids had that opportunity growing up. You know, they would be inspired, and it would disappear. It's like the spark just going out.
I'm definitely very, very much focused on my writing. So, when something comes to me – if I have a meeting in 10 minutes – I call and I cancel that meeting, because I know I have to go and write that song.
I'm a little bit unlike some writers in that I have to finish the song once I start it. I'll sit down and I'll start it and finish it within an hour – which is very, very fun.
It's almost like the weight’s been lifted. Once you finish that song – you write the last lyric, or you finish the last chord – and it's just like a breath of fresh air hits you. “Oh, my gosh, I just finished that!”
Q: I'm also curious about your music videos. “Galileo” was the first one that I saw, and it got me thinking, “Wow, this girl is super-creative, and super-imaginative.”
Olivia Rox: Sorry I didn't wear my beard today!
Q: I know; I'm a little disappointed. But that's OK. Two points off the article – just kidding.
So how does it work? Do you say, "I'm going to write this song; the song is going to be about what I'm feeling and what I want to say to my fans," and then the video will follow? Or do you try to think what would make for an interesting, colorful video that your fans would like?
What is the dynamic between the song and the video?
Olivia Rox: So, “Galileo” was pretty funny, because I wrote that when I was younger, and it was the first time I was studying Galileo. And I was just blown away with his story. I felt that, in so many ways, he was similar to me – which sounds so strange, because he's this Italian astronomer back in the 1600s. How could that be?
And I sort of just wrote the song about him, and his life, and what he was going through. And as I'm writing, I realize how he's so similar to me. He was so misunderstood, and he was trying to get his ideas out there. So, I wrote this kind of thinking of that and thinking, “Wow, what a fun video it would be if I actually dressed up as him,” because I'm kind of showing these similarities in my writing.
A lot of times, though, the video does come when I'm writing a song. It's almost like this whole package – like “Here's how I want it to be presented to the world; here's what this needs to be.” And I did the same thing with a couple of other videos, which is just – it’s so fun and cool to have that creative freedom, so to speak, that you can create something from nothing.
Q: And to do those videos in one take, I think, is remarkable. Is that something you practice and you prepare for ahead of time? Or do you just go out, and do it, and let the chips fall where they might?
Olivia Rox: It's pretty wild doing one take. We don't really practice. We do like one sort of walkthrough. “OK, here's where we're going to go. The camera’s going to go this way. ‘Oh, dang, can't fit in this corner. OK; we'll have to go this way instead.’ ” Kind of trying to think about where we need to be in the song when we walk to that pace. So, we'll do it with the song playing and just literally walking through.
For instance, the one I did in Cancun – the “I Will Be” video – that was our second take. We did one take; I don't know what happened – I think we stopped halfway through, because the stairs were really slippery. And we're like, “Oh, gosh; OK, we got to do this again.” And then the second take that we did, we got it. And we're like, “OK; we're done. That's it.” We literally only filmed two takes. So we were like, “OK; I hope we have it!”
But it's very fun and freeing to just know stuff is gonna go wrong; it's not going to be perfect; but it's fun; it's raw; it's real.
And my mom, actually, she's a director. So, I grew up in this world of filming and having to see these incredible actors – and they would get it from one tape. That was the thing. So, I think I grew up around that knowing, “Hey, I can do this. I can make this happen.”
And then I think part of it also came, when I was younger, I had the role of Annie for 75 shows, which was phenomenal. When you're doing theater, that's live. It is one take. You can't mess up. If you do, you just keep going. And that definitely taught me a very good work ethic for these one-take videos.
Note: On the song “Go For It,” Olivia reportedly “held the longest note/phrase ever held full voice in a pop song, coming in at 33 seconds.”
Q: So, in the video and in the song, you have this incredibly long, powerful note. I'm wondering, did that come about organically? Or was that a conscious decision to insert that into the song?
Olivia Rox: (Laughs) OK, so, we were in the studio. And I was originally just going to do like four bars or something. And I held out the note. And my producer was like, “Oh yeah, great, great, phenomenal.” And then I'm sitting there and I go, “I wonder if I could hold that and double the length?” And everyone in the studio was like, “No way; that's way too long. You're never gonna be able to. That's impossible.”
And like, someone Googles the longest note ever held. They're like, “That's even longer than that!” (Laughs) I’m like, “But, maybe?” So, the joke in the studio is, “I guess I'm just gonna ‘Go For It.’ Let's see what happens. Let’s ‘Go For It.’ ”
So I walked back into the vocal booth, put my headphones on, and I could feel my heart fluttering – like, “Can I do this? Can I do this?” Take a huge breath right before – I think I sucked all the air out of the vocal booth. And I did it. … It worked. … And I was kind of, like, blown away by the fact that I could even hold this note long enough, because I had not really practiced it. I don't know if we did another take, or if that was the take, but it was really cool.
And then later, I did it in some live shows. And I think people think it was fake. You know, when they hear the album, they're like, “Oh, that must be stretched or something.” But then I do it live. And people go. “Wait, like, that was this?”
It's fun, though. It wasn't planned. It was just in the studio, kind of spur-of-the-moment-type-thing.
Q: When we're watching the video, I'm assuming you're not actually singing it then, you're faking it, right, in the video?
Olivia Rox: I do lip-sync to the actual recording.
Q: Which is, obviously, pretty common with musicians. So the question then is: Is it harder to hit that note, or is it harder to pretend you're hitting the note in the video?
Olivia Rox: (Laughs) Well, what's funny is, like, I'm breathing while I'm hitting the note, right? So I'm like (emulates note) trying not to move my chest while I'm breathing, you know? (Laughs)
But, you know, what I do is I do kind of sing along when I'm doing those videos; because that's a little trick that, when you're doing these videos, you want to be singing; you want the emotions happening in your face. If you're just going along like (feigns disinterest) nothing's really gonna happen; you're not going to see that emotion. When you are actually singing it, it's a different vibe, I think.
As far as lip-synching, I only do that when I'm filming videos. I've literally made a pact with myself, because I know of other singers who do lip-sync live. And I’m just like, “Nope; can't do it. Never – it’s not going to happen.”
Q: I appreciate that. I always like it when the artists sing live for their fans.
So, obviously, you're a singer; I know you've got a tour that you just announced coming up next year. But we know the past year has changed so many different things, and the way people get media is different.
Your Facebook show is really pretty incredible – and there's so many different things you do in that. Has that made you think about branching out beyond music and maybe being like a multimedia artist? Being a singer and an actress, or doing variety shows? I mean, there's so many different things I feel you could do because of that Facebook show. What would you like to do when the world returns to normal, and we go about the rest of this year and into next year?
Olivia Rox: I’m definitely going to keep the show going, because I love speaking to people and having these incredible relationships with artists and the fans also. I think it's a really great way to connect with the fans – and speak more than just some artist who you only hear one of their songs. You really can't get to know a person when you just hear one song.
I love being in front of the camera; I have ever since I was little. So, I’m definitely going to keep that show going. And I have an announcement coming up soon, which is kind of still in the music vein, but branching out a little bit.
So, I definitely think, being just more than an artist who sings someone else's songs, right? That's what we see a lot. I think it's really about just being myself to the fullest, and seeing wherever that may take me.
But I've always been a creator. I've have like a book – I know this is gonna sound silly. But, ever since I was little, I've kept this giant pink book of all of my inventions and ideas and ways to be a businesswoman.
I definitely I want to be more than that. I want to be the fullest extent of myself that I can be, because I know that I have the capability. And I think I want to inspire others to realize they have the capability to be more than what they may be at the time. Because we're an incredible race – the human race – we have so much power within us and so many possibilities that we can follow.
So, I definitely think being a role model, in that way, is definitely who I strive to be. And make change. You know, there's a lot of people who are in it for money, or cars or something. But I think, if I can make a difference – and music does make a difference – when someone hears a song that hits their heart, it can change them. It can change their feelings; it can heal a broken heart; it can make them think twice about what they might be doing that day; or their job; or they're unhappy in their love or their marriage – whatever it may be. Music can do that change.
And so I think, just in everything that I do, I go at it with that in mind: Making the world a better place.
Olivia Rox (Images courtesy of Scoop Marketing)